Mobbed debuts tonight on Fox at 9 p.m. Eastern (or roughly after whenever American Idol finally wraps up).
Mobbed is a cross between a show about an elite crime-solving squad and a sci-fi monster movie, where everybody in the cast stares in the distance at some vague threat and talks in solemn tones about how it must be stopped or at least diverted.
I realize that this sounds awesome—or at least like a show that’s so bad, it’s good—but it’s also a reality show hosted by Howie Mandel that takes all of the spontaneity out of a series of popular YouTube videos and choreographs those events to within an inch of its life. You remember when all of those high school kids were doing lip dubs, and then The Office did one, and no matter how hard the show tried, they just couldn’t make it look amateurish enough? This is kind of like that, only blown up into a reality show for some reason. (Suffice it to say, this would be much, much better if turned into a mockumentary.)
The basic premise behind Mobbed relies on viewers believing in something Mandel keeps describing as the power of the flash mob. Now, if you’ve been on the Internet ever, you’ve probably seen one of those videos where people start unexpectedly singing and dancing in public places, often to promote joy or holiday spirit or cell phone corporations. These videos are fun because even the very best of them (including the ones sponsored by major corporations) have a nicely amateurish and low-fi vibe, plus they’re over in five minutes, tops. Most of the time, the camera angles indicate what’s on screen has been caught hastily by someone’s cell phone camera, and the performers may not have the greatest training but they sure as hell have heart.
Anyway, Mandel and Fox have decided to turn these videos into a TV show, which leads to them using the term “flash mob” so many times that it ceases to have any meaning and becomes whatever the hell they want it to mean. Mandel and his compatriots in crime often seem to believe that the flash mob isn’t something that can be planned out or controlled but only something that can be briefly harnessed before turning on those that created it, which is where the monster movie aspect comes in. Mandel stares wide-eyed at the camera as he talks about the power of the flash mob, even as you can see the flash mob devouring military hardware whole just over his shoulder.
Presumably, as the series went on, Mandel and the gang would help a large variety of people tell other people assorted things via flash mob (which is like the most expensive singing telegram ever, apparently), but in tonight’s episode (the only one Fox has bothered to schedule), the choreographed flash mob does the flash mobbiest thing a choreographed flash mob could ever possibly do: It helps out with a wedding proposal.
Some taciturn guy named Justin wants to ask his lady friend, Nikki, to marry him, and this means that he’s requested Mandel and compatriots to help him come up with an elaborate musical number set to a combination of various pop songs, including “Everlasting Love” and Chris Brown’s “Forever,” which is now apparently the official anthem of forever love despite Brown's, er, problematic relationship with romance, almost entirely thanks to that one couple in Minnesota. So far, so good. It’s not a bad plan, since a wedding proposal is one of the few times going way, way over the top is societally acceptable, and Mandel has brought his elite flash-mob-planning squad to bear on the problem. He’s got directors! Choreographers! Public locations scouts! Conceptual artists! Really, this could all work.
But then Mandel gets this gleam in his eye and says something to the effect of, “Listen, I’m not content with JUST a proposal. Let’s throw these kids a FULL WEDDING, one that the girl is NOT EXPECTING AT ALL.”
It’s here that you realize Fox hired Mandel to host this show because he’s fucking insane, and there’s no plan he can’t make so big that it becomes unsustainable. (He’s in charge of the military-industrial complex, in case you were wondering.)
Mandel seizes on something that Justin says about Nikki in an offhand fashion: Nikki has a real problem with jealousy, particularly in regards to Justin talking to other girls. She KNOWS he’s in love with her. She KNOWS he’s faithful to her. But she doesn’t like the other girls in his life, particularly when they throw themselves at him or something. (We don’t get a lot more explanation to this, and Mobbed is mostly content to portray Nikki as someone who wildly vacillates between super-cool chick and emotionally wrung-out basketcase. To be fair, almost all of her heightened emotions are directly thanks to this fucking crazy flash mob plan. When she meets Mandel near the end of the broadcast, she says, “Hi, Howie,” to him in a tone of voice that seems to suggest, “I FUCKING KNEW YOU WERE IN ON THIS FROM THE START, MANDEL. YOU’RE A DEAD MAN.”) Anyway, this is probably because Nikki’s gorgeous but a heavier girl living in Los Angeles, a place that often drives any girl above a size 1 out of her mind. But Justin mentions it, Howie hears about it, and he gets awful ideas aplenty.
Soon, Justin’s simple flash mob involves the following: clog dancers, a marching band, 400 dancers, a trolley, a choreographed outdoor mall fountain, fake security guards, singing waiters, tumblers, girls dancing in elevators, the world’s worst wedding dress, a justice of the peace, dozens of Justin and Nikki’s friends and family flown in from all over the country, Justin and pals dancing, and a girl who comes up to Justin and acts as if she’s been having a thing on the side with him RIGHT IN FRONT OF NIKKI. (Mandel, you emotionally manipulative son of a bitch!) It takes close to 20 minutes of screen time to play out, and there’s often no rhyme or reason to it beyond, “STUFF! I NEED MORE STUFF! I NEED MORE STUFF RIGHT NOW!” The only emotionally real moment in the whole episode comes when Nikki is nearly distraught from what she believes could be proof Justin is cheating on her and one of the actors finds a way to talk her down. Other than that, it’s all chaos, all the time.
And this is to say nothing of the fact that even though Justin and Nikki have been together for three years, this is still an episode of television that posits the following: If a girl woke up one morning single and went to bed that night unexpectedly married, practically skipping the engagement step in the process, ALL WITHOUT HER KNOWLEDGE, wouldn’t that be fucking awesome? Wouldn’t you want to watch a YouTube of THAT? (Mandel said in a promotional appearance on last night’s American Idol that lots of other news could be delivered by flash mob, like, “Honey, we’re having a baby,” but knowing Mandel, he’d steal the machine from the last episode of Fringe, accelerate the mother’s pregnancy, then hand the placenta-covered baby to the stunned father in the middle of a J.C. Penney’s while 5,000 Rhesus monkeys tap danced to Amy Grant’s “Baby, Baby.”) It’s here that Mobbed’s foremost problem arises: It doesn’t know how to quit when it’s ahead.
Because, look: I like musical numbers, and it was kind of fun to watch all of those people dancing in the mall and watch Nikki’s emotions approach absolute hysteria until she saw her boyfriend, dressed in a tux, making the most badass entry by mall trolley in the history of filmed entertainment. But it didn’t have any of the purity or fun of those YouTube videos because KNOWING WHAT WENT INTO IT made it less surprising and, thus, less fun. It was surprising for NIKKI, sure, but it wasn’t for us. Now, if the show had actually gotten into the nitty gritty of what it took to put this together, that might have been kind of fun, but it’s too busy having Mandel come up with increasingly wacky schemes as everybody else stares at him in baffled wonderment, like he’s the King of All Entertainment and not a reality TV tyrant who must be stopped at all costs. (Actually, add Nikki to this show as a recurring character who stalks Mandel with a shotgun, and I might watch again.) Somewhere around the 10 minute mark, this stops being Justin’s marriage proposal and becomes Mandel’s marriage proposal/wedding/space shuttle launch. And that robs the moment when Justin pops the question of the emotional power it needs to have to justify all the craziness.
But I’d sort of recommend you watch Mobbed nonetheless. I can’t call it good TV, not by any stretch of the imagination, but the sheer car-wreck quality of it is fascinating to watch (particularly if you can put yourself in mind of just how horrifying all of this really is). It’s a show perched precariously on a terrible idea that keeps piling terrible ideas on top of itself, until there are so many stupid things going on that you can’t tear your eyes away. Fox is a network that has learned excess is best when it comes to things like American Idol and Glee, but have those shows ever gone so far as to give you Howie Mandel as a borderline sadistic master-of-ceremonies? No, they haven’t, and so long as Mobbed is subject to his (or, more accurately, the producers’) every whim, it will be fascinatingly awful stuff.